Tony Benn died on Friday and we lost another hero in the fight for social justice at home and peace internationally. A giant of the Labour Movement, an icon who came from the era of progressive, tempered socialism of a New Jerusalem, Benn never stopped campaigning for social justice, never gave up the struggle to make the world a better place; most of his last 13 years after retiring from Westminster were spent as President of the Stop the War Coalition. Who among the current clique of politicians and their of vanguard of Etonian millionaires, who plate up offerings of Cuts to our post-millennial God of Growth, even comes close to Benn’s stature as a consistent champion of conviction over careerism, of deeper democracy, wealth equality and international peace? To inject some dynamism into British politics we need new heroes of the Commons, as Benn evidently was, that might wake up the Thatcherite dinosaurs who’ve taken up residence there for the last few decades.
My generation has lived solely under variations on an unchanging theme; shades of neoliberalism espoused by faithful avatars from Major, via Blair and Brown, to Cameron and Co. Even the idea that a passionately principled and idealistic man like Benn, who frequently challenged the status quo in the political arena, was once entrenched in our political system and came very close to being deputy leader of Labour seems strange now. In this sense, Benn’s death and the incredible outpouring of tributes that have followed it reflect what we have lost under the neoliberal consensus that says selfishness and individual desire are more important than the collective. Horizons for those of us younger people who still invest time and effort thinking and acting on ‘politics’ at all have been curtailed since before we were born, as the political class refuses to challenge the current order’s philosophy of market privilege and laissez-faire individualism uber alles.
Many politicians that have been interviewed since Benn’s death on broadcast media appeared eager to use the opportunity to close their long running contestations with him over policy. Across party boundaries, the narrative that’s been repeated has consistently has been something along the lines of ‘he was a wonderful man but we all disagreed with him’, or insisting as Shirley Williams did that his views were ‘curiously backward’; a highly subjective declaration. But why the need to stress this disagreement and division so much when asked to say just a few words by the media? It has seemed very much like a closing of the ranks by the current mainstream residing in Westminster, all determined to quell the resurgence of Benn’s radical ideas that are now rightly being given attention again following the his death. Surely the best way to celebrate his memory is to let those ideas bloom:
On the NHS and 1945:
- –“In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
On the Labour Party:
On Modern War:
- “I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’ That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”